‘Tis the season for the Habs to either live or die.
Every season it’s the same script during the holidays. The Habs either flourish during Christmas on the road or they falter. In this two weeks, we usually learn whether the Montreal Canadiens are for real or not.
This season’s run is as difficult as it can be, with six games all over the United States as the scheduling computer seems to need a geography lesson.
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The Habs are north first in Denver, then south in Phoenix, then close by in Las Vegas. They take a break for the holidays all the way back to Montreal, only to have to head south to Florida and Tampa, but then comes the killer — that moment when you tell yourself that the algorithm that makes the schedule needs a map — as the Habs travel all the back to Dallas to wrap up the six pack.
Seems kind of ridiculous that they couldn’t do Dallas when they were already out west in Phoenix and Vegas, but it is what it is. Game one in the make-or-break six-game series was in Denver Wednesday night.
It sure was good to see Victor Mete back on the Habs’ blue line. Not that he deserved to go to the minors, but it was clear that it helped. Mete was skating well. He was head manning the puck quickly, which too many of the other Habs defencemen don’t do well. He made smart decisions.
There’s a spot for Mete on the left side of a better Habs blue line. It is ultimately likely as a 5-6 defender, but a good one, instead of a third-pair defenceman that seems to be hanging on every night to stay in the NHL mix.
Brendan Gallagher called his game Monday night against the Boston Bruins likely the worst of his career, which seemed harsh considering he didn’t stand out as worse than anyone else on that off night. But if it was his worst, then he certainly responded.
Gallagher, with the deflection of Jeff Petry, shot to end the drought on the power play. The Habs had gone 0 for 25 before Gallagher finally ended it with his 15th of the season. Gallagher is halfway to his 31 goal best campaign last season, with less than half of this season played. It appears Gallagher’s 31 wasn’t a flash, but he could even best it this season.
What a beast Shea Weber is.
Weber back from injury only three weeks, yet he is anchoring the blue line with 30-minute performances. It is so very impressive how much of a physical force this man is — he is a specimen. For someone to carry around that giant frame, and move that fast with it, is rare.
Weber, handling the altitude in Denver, dominated the game for Montreal as he basically never lost a puck battle, despite being on the ice so much. Just imagine if Weber had a partner. Imagine how good that pairing would be, if he had a true, talented 1-2 partner.
Weber used to be paired with Ryan Suter a long time ago, and that was one of the best partnerships in the game. If the Habs could find a player who had Suter’s skill set, the Habs would be set up as an extremely competitive team for years to come.
The club is strong everywhere else. They have Carey Price in net who is sixth in the NHL in high danger chances saved this season. They are strong at forward as evinced by their rank of fifth in 5-on-5 goals in the league. They’re going to get considerably better at forward, too, with the arrival of talented prospects.
Their nemesis, though, is that partner for Weber. Right now, it’s Weber and and the other guy who Weber has to cover for. When half of a hockey game for the Habs is Weber and another talented blue liner who belongs with Weber, the two will dominate a game every second night and the Habs will be near the top of the NHL standings. That left-side first pair defender to play with Weber should ultimately be a puck mover with some skating speed. He needs to be a player who can make an outlet pass. He doesn’t have to even be amazing, but someone who is not prone to mistakes and can transition quickly.
Jordie Benn may be the absolute worst choice that the Habs can make as Weber’s partner. Benn is a player who does nothing fast as you’ll see in the Wilde Goats.
Jordie Benn simply cannot play at the speed required. Benn on the opposition rush is often beaten one-on-one often as his backward skating simply can not handle the better players forward skating. What’s worse for Benn, though, is when he has it on his stick and the opposition is forechecking. He simply cannot find an outlet pass fast enough. Often he stick handles, and he must have this impression that he is fast and able, but he gets stripped of the puck easily.
Behind the goal line he often wins the battle with good physical force, but then, after winning it, he has no idea how to complete his work. He gets robbed of the puck instead and the Habs have to needlessly defend for another 25 seconds. One assumes it’s embarrassing to just flip it up and out all of the time, but when you can’t find an outlet, that’s the play to make at your skill level.
When will the Habs be a top flight team, you ask? When Benn, Schlemko, Kulak and everyone else they try on the left side are not being asked to be top-pair defencemen because they simply do not have that skill set in them.
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When Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw are not driving the play offensively, it’s a bit of a mess sometimes.
Drouin was a goat on the second goal — and not the only goat, as Benn did nothing as well. Drouin made an attempt to stop Gabriel Landeskog on the 2-1 goal, but he simply didn’t stay with it.
That goal was the difference in a 2-1 Colorado final.
Drouin turned away instead the other direction. The line will get hemmed in at times. Drouin is putting up the best numbers of his career, but a stronger commitment defensively would certainly help the overall cause, because you want your top line to be able to drive the game as well.
The best line on the team for that is Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. When you get the hardest match-ups and defensive zone starts but still have the best Corsi on the team, that’s significant. This line is going to have to be better.
Drouin and Domi have excellent offensive chemistry, but they also need to have a better plus-minus — or Corsi, if you prefer.
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Carey Price had a strong game, but he made a vital mistake that cost the club dearly. You could argue that Jordie Benn didn’t provide an outlet for Price and that would be fair, but still, Price has to make a play that isn’t dangerous. That could be throwing it into the corner, or he could attempt to freeze it as well. Referees are not penalizing goalies this year for killing the action. Price has to do anything except give it to the Avalanche, who quickly turned the error into a goal.
It’s quite a Calder Trophy chase this season, but barring an injury, it appears Elias Pettersson is a lock. He’s playing some of the best hockey for a rookie since, well, Patrick Laine.
Pettersson is a beautiful player to watch and the Vancouver Canucks have to be thrilled with their pick only two years ago. Pettersson has 35 points in 31 games this season. Rasmus Dahlin is likely to also be a finalist for the award this season, as he is leading a roaring comeback for the Buffalo Sabres this year.
The third finalist is likely to be Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators, but Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in the mix. Tkachuk has 18 points this season and the Habs’ first rounder has 17 points. If Kotkaniemi can squeeze in a better second half of the season, he might just be a finalist. Kotkaniemi is the youngest among all of the players vying for the Calder, as he turned 18 only this summer.